Reports cast doubt on bio-cremation process, Cloquet Council votes ‘no’The Cloquet City Council said a decisive “no” to allowing the bio-cremation process at local funeral homes at its Tuesday night meeting by a vote of 6:1. The vote means the Cloquet funeral home will not be the first in the Northland to offer the relatively new alternative to burial and fire-based cremation.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
The Cloquet City Council said a decisive “no” to allowing the bio-cremation process at local funeral homes at its Tuesday night meeting.
Councilors and Mayor Bruce Ahlgren voted 6:1 to deny two different resolutions concerning bio-cremation – a process that uses water, high temperature, high pressure and alkali to reduce the soft tissues of the body to a liquid form – with Ahlgren dissenting in both cases.
The first resolution would have amended city code to allow bio-cremation as an accessory use to any permitted mortuary or funeral home in the city of Cloquet. Once that resolution was denied, the second resolution for a conditional use permit (CUP) for Atkins-Northland Funeral Home to operate an alkaline-hydrolysis machine to perform bio-cremations was essentially moot, because it was not an allowed use after the first vote.
The vote means the Cloquet funeral home will not be the first in the Northland to offer the relatively new alternative to burial and fire-based cremation. Considered a greener option by most experts, it requires less energy and fewer natural resources than burning a body through traditional cremation or building a coffin and concrete vault. Bio-cremation also doesn’t release mercury from dental amalgams, which does happen during cremation by fire.
The denials came a week after the Cloquet Planning Commission voted to recommend approval of both resolutions.
However, much of the presentation prior to Tuesday’s Council vote focused on information discovered by City Attorney Bill Helwig that morning that cast doubt on previous information concerning the destruction of prions, malformed proteins that cause diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob (CJD) disease in humans, chronic wasting disease in deer and mad cow disease in cattle.
At the previous Planning Commission meeting, Community Development Director Holly Butcher had told the commission that research showed that all disease, including CJD, would be destroyed in a high pressure (at least 60 psi) and high temperature (303 F.) alkaline hydrolysis unit.
Tuesday night, Butcher said the reports from 2002 discovered by Helwig appeared to cast doubt upon those numbers.
“We’ve been told one hour [at the highest temperature and pressure] by Mayo [Clinic], but the research [Helwig] uncovered says it’s better to have those temperatures and pressure for six to eight hours,” Butcher said. “What he’s saying is that the Mayo guidance doesn’t necessarily match with the national and international guidelines.”
Reasons cited by Councilors for voting against the bio-cremation resolutions ranged from disputed scientific evidence regarding proper operational standards and the possibility that prions could be released into the sanitary sewer system (if inadequately treated) and from there into Lake Superior, as well as issues with the process being inconsistent with a residential neighborhood and the lack of strict regulatory standards in the state.
The day following the vote, Terry Regnier, director of Anatomical Services at Mayo, expressed surprise that city officials cited scientific evidence as a reason not to allow bio-cremation by alkaline hydrolysis machines within the city.
“I was concerned when they were talking about a low-temperature machine, but this high-pressure, high-temperature technology was designed to sterilize [the effluent],” Regnier said, adding that the CDC recommends the same bio-cremation methods used by Mayo – and proposed for the Cloquet funeral home – for disposal of bodies infected with prion-based diseases like CJD.
In Minnesota, alkaline hydrolysis was approved by the state legislature in 2003 and the first single-unit alkaline hydrolysis machine came online at Mayo Clinic in February 2006. Since then, Mayo has disposed of 750 bodies through bio-cremation, and sent the effluent into the Rochester sanitary sewer system, while returning the crushed bones and teeth to family members.
When asked if he was confident that high-pressure, high temperature alkaline hydrolysis destroys prions, Regnier didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m confident this is safe, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it.”
During the meeting, Butcher noted that there appears to be no “magic number” that guarantees destruction of the prions, therefore they recommended against allowing alkaline hydrolysis until a time when there are firm technical guidelines for the process. Six hours seems to be a good number, but that is far longer than was originally planned for the high-pressure, high-temperature alkaline hydrolysis machine that Atkins-Northland funeral home wanted to purchase.
The Council "no" vote met with enthusiastic approval from an audience of nearly 50 who were mostly opposed to the bio-cremation process or the installation of an alkaline hydrolysis machine in a residential neighborhood.
Funeral directors Bob and Karen Atkins, were disappointed by the decision.
“Information that came in late and presented to the council was outdated by nine years and was a study done by the European Commission on animals,” Atkins said in a statement the next morning. “The least they should have done is given us a chance to refute their outdated information or given themselves more time to research this. Surprisingly, one document they did provide me with minutes before the meeting included information dated 2005 that stated ‘Alkaline Hydrolysis is the only process validated to destroy the prions of [diseases] such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.’ Of course I found this after the meeting.”
Mayor Bruce Ahlgren had suggested tabling the issue, but At-large Councilor Barb Wyman had already made a motion to deny the resolution. Although the vote on her motion was delayed to allow city staff to present on the issue and time for public comment, Wyman’s motion passed when the roll call vote was taken.
Ahlgren said he voted in favor of the bio-cremation resolution because he was satisfied that the process was safe.
“The fact that Mayo has been doing it since 1996 and the University of Minnesota uses it for animal carcasses and they both put it in the sewer – you’ve got our state’s two leading institutions using the same process,” he said. “Every time something new comes down the road, we’re afraid of it. People were afraid of cremation [by fire] 30 years ago.”
However, Ahlgren added that he thought the council made the correct decision, considering how much new information they were provided right before the meeting started, without adequate time to study it.
Atkins said he didn’t know if the funeral home would pursue the issue any further.
“For right now we want to concentrate on serving our families,” he said.
And the citizens said
“What is the compelling reason for us to be early adaptors of this technology? How many jobs does it mean for Cloquet, is there an economic benefit? What’s the end game? We have one entrepreneur that could benefit.”
~ Parnell Thill
“This new thing is the future. We die. We decompose. We need to minimize waste for our future children, in a safe way of course . … I wish I were buried in my back yard … but that’s not the way it is. The earth is getting smaller and we advance.
~ Patricia Smoczynski-lake
“Do you understand the potential for hybrid bacteria? No matter what you say, there is no guarantee [alkaline hydrolysis] will kill a prion.”
~ Gerald Manthey
“Several years back, some lightning strikes knocked out the pump stations and the back-up generators weren’t big enough. … [so untreated sewage went in the river]. I’d hate to see this go down in Jay Cooke Park. If he wants to see this go in, he [funeral director Bob Atkins] can pay for bigger generators because the county went too cheap.
~ Dan Tarr
“There is no one perfect way to dispose of our loved ones’ remains. I’m very happy Bob and Karen are willing to go to this great expense to offer families another option. I don’t like thinking about the chemicals that were in my husband’s body that went up the [crematory] smokestack [into our atmosphere].”
~ Sandy Green